- Can we simply gain our souls?
- The consumerist narrative
- Constantly moving happiness machines
- The experience of veneration
I think it is possible to speak of the “soul” of a culture, its inner sense of itself and reason for being. How does it judge success? What does it mark as a hero? I would contend that unless we consider that soul, we do not understand a culture nor do individuals within it understand themselves.
Western Europe in the Middle Ages cannot be understood without considering the great cathedrals that dominated its attention. They were long-term projects that often involved the larger part of the community. They represent an abiding focus, an expression of the collective soul. It is little wonder that many in the ages that have followed pondered their absence within the modern soul.
What a gothic cathedral was to the Middle Ages, activity and busy-ness are to us. If you stand back from an American city (perhaps from the height of a plane), the most notable thing you will see is movement. The constant motion of automobiles and trucks are our most significant feature …
The saying from the desert fathers regarding stability (“stay in your cell […and your cell will teach you everything]”), suggests that our culture lacks a spiritual center. Ceaseless activity can have no center, only a direction. The cult of progress that fascinates the modern mind seems to intimate that the center is somewhere we haven’t reached. Perhaps a few more road trips will get us there.
The greatest weakness within our collective soul is our absence of being. We are a culture of action, but not of being.
In the early 90’s, when the Cold War ended, I pondered what freedom would mean to the nations of the East. It brought about a deep emptiness within me as I realized that we had almost nothing to offer, apart from unlimited consumerism. Freedom for its own sake is meaningless. As it is, the soul of the East remained more intact than I had imagined.
We cannot become the East (not even those of us who are Orthodox). It might be sufficient, however, if we simply gain our souls. That is a long, slow work, a forging that must be done in the hottest fires and with great patience. We cannot teach what we do not as yet possess.
What do the cultural forces think of our humanity?
Arguably, our culture views us as producers and consumers: we are individuals within an economy whose purpose and meaning is largely defined economically. This elevates autonomy, adaptability and manageability to the place of primary, defining values. We have been taught, increasingly, to think of ourselves in terms of job, vocation, and career, while other matters, such as marriage, family, religious belief, etc., are merely lifestyle choices (making them similar to other consumer decisions) …
Classical Christianity does not have a model for how men and women fit within a workforce, for the simple reason that our place in the workforce is not fundamental to what it means to be human. However, male and female are primary theological categories that are fundamental to our understanding of salvation. In almost any other age, such a statement would seem uninteresting, or at least, without controversy. The fact that the reality of our binary existence is becoming marginalized suggests primarily the triumph of consumerist economics over more traditional understandings.
Consumption prefers that we understand ourselves as “those who choose.” Any definition of our humanity that impairs or impedes that concept has been targeted by the internal logic of the culture.
… The risk of consumerism lies in its lack of a soul. Production and consumption in the ever-changing disguise of fashion begin to generate a substitute for meaning …
Consumerist Christianity is an increasingly small religion – not in terms of numbers, but in terms of content. “My spirituality,” “my prosperity,” the “god that I believe in that you don’t need to believe in,” are all expressions of the self, not of the transcendence of the self. When the self involved dies, so will everything else in its life, its god included.
The consumer world does not suffer well. It has substituted an ethic of false compassion, defined as the relief of pain (not the “sharing of suffering,” its original meaning) … Consumption is turned towards the self. Within the self alone, suffering can have no meaning. In the name of compassion, we kill, thinking that death ends suffering. It is an act of despair.
The struggles of immigrant America (another possible source for the American soul) have long been purchased by the consumerist narrative. They are not seen as the stories of a people whose suffering produced greatness of soul, but of ethnic groups who gradually achieved prosperity in the pursuit of the national dream. For immigrants from Orthodox lands, the narrative easily becomes the loss of a soul.
The consumerist narrative of modern culture, however, is not the full story, nor even the true story of the world ….
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, A Defining Moment)
We do not think about acquiring virtue, nor do we hold up as models, persons who exemplify virtue. From the point of view of the ethics of virtue, we are a particularly “vicious” society, that is, we are ruled by the “vices.” You cannot base a culture on the manipulation of consumer desires and produce virtuous people. Instead, you produce people who, even when they do the right thing, often do it for the wrong reason and in the wrong way. Almost every consumerist instinct is antithetical to the virtues.
After his election in 1929, President Hoover, speaking to a group of advertisers and public relations men, said: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving ‘happiness machines’ – machines which have become the key to economic progress.”
He was articulating something that had come about in that decade, the application of the science of psychology to the formation and management of human desires. Advertising changed from being information-based to desire-based. We have never looked back. After what is now nearly a century of desire-based culture, we have become deeply enslaved by our passions and increasingly alienated from the older cultures of virtue. We not only shopbased on our desires, but pray and worship in the same manner. Contemporary Christianity has become alienated from the virtues and champions the management of desires under the guise of “evangelism.” You cannot save people through their passions. They become the prey of demons.
But there are virtuous people among us. I know such a man ….
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, A Virtuous Man) I couldn’t pass up that shocking Herbert Hoover praise. 1928! 87 years ago! “Constantly moving happiness machines.” That’s your answer to what American cultural forces think of our humanity.
If debasement of our humanity is the key to economic progress, then the end of economic progress can’t come too soon for me.
Once I started quoting what Fr. Stephen said about his virtuous man, I didn’t know where to stop, so I deleted all I’d clipped. You certainly can read it for yourself, but I’ll give you a hint.
I’m not sure what those who are strangers to Mary imagine goes on in the life of an Orthodox or Catholic Christian. I cannot speak for Catholics (they’re more than capable of speaking for themselves). First, I know that there is nothing even remotely like worship accorded to her. The entire experience of veneration seems to have been lost within Protestant thinking. I often use examples of patriotic feeling, or some such inadequate experience, to suggest analogies. But, in truth, it is an experience that has no parallel.
For one, I have no conception of Mary apart from Christ. She is not someone-in-herself to be considered alone. The traditional title affirmed by the 3rd Ecumenical Council is “Theotokos,” the “Birthgiver of God.” In the same manner, we say of Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary.” Christ is the God become man, and His humanity is utterly and completely derivative of Mary. He is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. It is the nature of our humanity that if we speak of His Body and Blood, we cannot do so in a manner that excludes her from that reality.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Beneath Her Compassion)
Fr. Stephen is too refined to put it this bluntly, but it seems at time that Protestants mistake veneration for worship because they:
- ignore Mary and the Saints,
- venerate God, and
- worship nothing.
That way of putting it, frankly, would probably have gotten my attention when I was still on the Evangelicalish edge of Protestantism because I was chronically, for decades, frustrated with what passed for “worship.”
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)